Mark, my husband, was 24 and asked, “So are you an American first or a Jew?” I was 18 years old and not yet prepared to answer this question of identity. Mark argued that we had to consider ourselves Jews before anything else because our future safety was precarious. I told him that he was ridiculous to think that anything like the Holocaust could ever happen again. But given my age and limited experience, I had little understanding of intolerance or my role in educating future generations.
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended Sunday School at the synagogue my family belonged to… In sixth grade, my Sunday School teacher taught us about the Holocaust. She told us that six million Jews had perished. In order to grasp just how much that was, she asked us to make tally marks on loose-leaf paper. Each mark represented a Jewish life. The class filled sheet after sheet with tally marks and she lined the classroom walls with these papers. I think we reached about100,000 marks, and then we were asked to stretch our imaginations to ten times that amount, and then six times that number. As far as I was concerned, nothing this horrible could ever occur again.
The above is an exerpt from my essay, titled, Mommy, When Did You Turn Jewish? published in the North American Review in 2008.
What I learned from my Sunday School class experience was never, ever, forget. We were taught that if we remembered the crimes of the past, and held close to our hearts the stories of those who had perished, we could stop a Holocaust from ever happening again.
And yet last week was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I didn’t know it. The day came and went like any other.
When I found out I’d let the day pass without acknowledgement, I was upset and frightened by what it could mean if I forgot again next year.
And what the consequences might be if you forgot too.
This past December, I visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Israel). I must admit, I didn’t want to go. I’d been there twice before, and it’s so depressing.
But I went once I realized that this was becoming a habit, that for the last few years, I’d been avoiding Holocaust museums, movies and books.
The experience I had at the museum is one I hope to remember for as long as I live.
There was a multitude of disheartening information at the museum but the thing that shocked me most was footage of Hitler addressing German Parliament. He spoke about the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe and received enthusiastic clapping from hundreds. Seeing this hatred with my own eyes was terrifying. Take a minute to view this short clip.
I’d been carrying around Man’s Search for Meaning for a couple of weeks, avoiding, procrastinating. But after missing Yom Hashoah, I finally started to read it. And yes, it’s painful but poignant too.
We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.- Frankl
In Why Should We Watch Movies Like Still Alice? I discuss empathy and how according to Roger Ebert it is the most essential quality of civilization.
That is why, even though it is difficult, we must go back and read Anne Frank.
We must visit her house in Amsterdam and go to Holocaust Museums around the world.
We must see, yet again, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Sophie’s Choice and Life is Beautiful.
We need to do these things in order to remember, because if we don’t keep in mind the horror stories that took place, and pass on what we’ve learned, what inconceivable atrocities might happen in time?
I’m not 18, or so innocent anymore, but my youngest daughter is; and that’s why she will travel to Poland next week. She will visit Auschwitz, and other neighboring concentration camps. This will be a grueling, eye-opening, trip for her; and I am pleased she is doing her part.
We must all do our part:
We must remember to never, ever, ever, forget.
I work in the Jewish museum. Memorial to the Holocaust and would luv to give u and ur family a private tour when u want. I can always remind u of the day as I help run programs and tours . After going to Poland to c the camps I have the responsibility to share it. Love sarah t
Thank you for commenting Sarah and for the invitation to the museum. You’ve offered this many times before and now you know why I haven’t taken you up on it. I want to now. Let’s make a plan for one day soon!
It’s easy to miss Yom Hashoah when you don’t have little kids in school to tell you it’s coming.
Being of Sephardic descent ,we personally know less survivors and have less stories than Ashkenazim (who actually have grandparents and relatives who lived through the Holocaust to keep them remembering).
On Passover, at the seders, Jews are supposed to tell about their own personal Exodus (like being healed from illness, getting through a tragedy etc…)and compare them to our Exodus from Egypt.
Recently I was told that Ashkenazim take the seders as opportunities to retell their Holocaust stories… their own personal Exodus.
As ancient and unrelated as our Egyptian slavery may seem today, the Holocaust is proof that history repeats itself. Observant Jews mention being saved from Egypt everyday in their prayers.
So while Yom Hashoa is a special day to remember the atrocities,maybe It’s something to remember everyday… (kind of like everyday should be Mother’s Day right?).
Maybe we don’t remember it everyday , but It’s certainly never too late to remember.
Thanks Kim for this thoughtful comment.
Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were born in Poland in the late 1800’s and both emigrated to South Africa in the early 1900’s. They left their families in Lodz, Poland for a better life in South Africa.
I had always known that my maternal grandmother had lost her whole family in the Holocaust, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago (when I was researching information about Holocaust victims on an Internet website for a book I was writing), that I encountered the horrifying statistics indicating that 54 members of her family were all murdered by the Nazis. Her mother who was 88 at the time, was killed in the Lodz Ghetto and her nine brothers and sisters and all their children were murdered at Chelmo, Auschwitz and Sobiler. The youngest of the children murdered was barely 5 years old.
Only once I was made fully aware of the finer details, did I get a stronger feeling of the pain and suffering my family went through. Before, 6 million was just a number, it didn’t relate to me any more than just a number. What I now feel for the 54 of my family, I would imagine the hundreds and thousands of families who were also affected, must feel today. Why couldn’t more have been done to prevent all this evil?
Last year we visited Yad Vashem in Israel where the Holocaust Memorial provides such a meaningful remembrance to those who perished. This is where I felt more than ever before, the connection to my past.
I could not obtain any detailed information about my Paternal ancestors – my family never discussed it in front of me – when it was, it only brought tears to their eyes.
Hopefully we pray, that the wave of anti-semitism gaining momentum around the world, will soon be overtaken by those who will stand up for us Jews and Israel, to not let this happen again!
Alan, this is so incredibly painful to read. I’m so sorry to hear about all that loss. One thing I didn’t mention in the post that I think is important to note is that there is horrible cruelty happening today. It saddens me that we don’t, or can’t, do anything to stop it. Hate is a devastating force. “The salvation of man is through love.”-Frankl